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Words mean a lot, don’t they? Culture, this seven-letter word, is among the most cardinal factors that define the very basis of our existence. It forms the fabric of many societies and is a matter of pride and dignity to people.

Each cultural sect has something unique to offer this world, but none the same. This also means that every person belongs to a sphere of his/her own, which needs to be respected, cherished, and admired. These differences, believe it or not, influence the way people do business – in terms of the way of conduct, framing of business protocols, negotiation and decision-making, management of employees and projects, risk-taking propensity, marketing and distribution, etc.

It is true that people are focused on the bottom line (meaning income), but it is also true that people like to do business with whom they like, trust, and understand. This article does not intend to undermine the role of money in business, but to substantiate what culture has to do with it.  

The Global Connection

The world is a melting pot of differing ideologies and practice systems. What is common and acceptable in one country could be in stark contrast to that of in another country. While some cultures prefer a direct and plain speech, others advocate a nuanced business behaviour. Words and actions may mean differently across cultures. For example, it is common for Americans to beckon someone with the palm of their hand facing up, but the same gesture is considered rude in Korea. Likewise, religious factors play a crucial role. McDonald’s knew this well, which is why they make it a point to change their menu in accordance with specific religious practices followed in their region of operation. The fast-food chain doesn’t use the term “Hamburgers” in Muslim countries, as the same may refer to pork. Instead, they call it beef burgers. It is imperative that professionals must care to recognize and understand the cultural facets, etiquettes, verbal and non-verbal communication, dialects, and the organizational hierarchy of the other to succeed globally.  

Businesses vying for global/domestic expansion or in the pursuit of launching marketing/business campaigns in a different culture may do well to set aside preconceived notions and try understanding the culture of its counterpart. Cultural misinterpretations may get in the way of a successful business contract. It takes a lot of groundwork to make a deal happen but a fragment of a mistake to spoil the course. Relationships are everything, be it in business or in life, and no rapport can be established without getting into the shoes of the other. A proper understanding of culture is essential for developing and maintaining business relationships, negotiating deals, or conducting sales or marketing campaigns. Businesses and people are getting more and more global, providing much impetus to the popular saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

History Mirrors Society

To state in simple terms, history provides a perfect definition of culture. It so accurately depicts the economic and political framework of a country. It portrays the cultural changes in a particular region over a period of time. For example, the Russian market was widely receptive of western utilities in the early ’90s but there was a reason why major brands like Coca-Cola and Nestle decided to localize their messages in Russia during the latter part of the 20th century. 

The pages of the bygone era have a lot to speak, be it to businesses, history fanatics or lovers of literature; it is evidently a good indicator of the habits and lifestyles of both partners and customers of another country, and therefore brings in the much-needed cross-cultural understanding that the modern-day business needs. 

Valuing Differences 

Culture has a direct bearing on how we think and act as individuals at workplaces and elsewhere and affects our relationship with one another. People spend most of the time at their workplaces, which makes it crucial for businesses to create a work culture wherein employees have a sense of belonging. The act of shaping the attitude towards cultural sensitivity must begin at the top. 

Engaging people with cultural awareness activities in the workplace shows them that their differences are being valued. These activities could be in various forms – be it celebrating birthdays with employees, customers and partners; respecting the cultural background of in-house and overseas employers by sending them a thoughtful card/gift basket; encouraging employees to share dishes inherent with their culture for any special occasion (food is one of the best ways to make people inter-relate to different cultures). Small acts of kindness would create great impressions in the mind. It can:

  • Help employees of diverse cultures to converse well.
  • Create a safer and welcoming workplace environment.
  • Increase productivity.
  • Bring new perspectives that can lead to creative and innovative ideas.
  • Create a culture of “Unity in Diversity, which promotes harmony and reduces misinterpretation and tension.

What Benefits Does a Diverse Workplace Offer? 

A diverse civilization has always been known for its rich and vibrant heritage, and so it is in the confines of a workspace. To start with, having various people with different ways of thinking, who can analyse a matter at hand from their distinct point of views, could open doors to a plethora of ideas. 

A company with cultural sensitivity in its charter is best equipped to deal with any cultural shocks that may arise in the verge of global expansion. Why? Because the very pursuit of expansion requires thorough research and preparation and may require (among other important activities), the gathering of information about local customs and laws on foreign soil, assessment of risks, designing of strategies, etc. And these very endeavours could be bolstered if such information could be gathered from the company’s own personnel. 

A group of people consists of a set of individuals who’d love to share their individual perspectives and respective cultural traits. This helps people who may represent the company abroad, especially expatriates, to avoid a cultural shock when they step foot offshore. Organizations with a uniform culture, on the other hand, could be forced to hire trainers from other countries and invest in other methods to acquaint people with the particular culture. 

Long story short, the benefits of diverse work culture, among many, include a strong knowledge base created by a range of cultural dimensions, availability of in-house experts who could train and inform people about the respective cultural traits, and the likelihood and ease of expansion. 

How About the Challenges? 

Some amount of workplace conflict is inevitable. A conflict may be deemed unreasonable for people in the top tier, but not so for people who share the same space from dawn to dusk. While the hours spent can bring people together like nothing else, it would in some cases bring friction (I repeat, that’s inevitable). And this is not because people are problematic (except in some cases) but as they religiously follow their unique norms, customs, and ideals, which results in holistic thought frames to which they are rooted to. People may not have a tussle over work issues but trivial things like a ‘sporting match’ or the ‘way of life’. Such indifferences, which may either happen so subtly or in a manner that is evident, could have a bearing on the production and the direction an organization or a team is traversing.

Cultural sensitivity must begin at the top. Proper strategic planning could lead to positive vibes and reduce, if not nullify, workplace disputes. The more an organization works to tackle this, the lesser the chances of friction  (though a trace of it would be there). And healthier work cultures are quick and adept in solving any issues at hand. 

Harmony, our Buzzword

Rightly so, because harmony creates positive vibes and positive vibes create good relationships. The world we live in is now a global village, which is typified by multicultural cities like Toronto and Los Angeles. Gone are the days where an entity casually chose to work with its own sect. The world is changing, rapidly so. Companies must understand the nuance of modern-day business to operate with splendour in this ultra-competitive market of today. 

How Technology Can be Used to Build Empathy

The technological advances of today present us an opportunity to foster relationships and build an integrated community, be it in the workplace or our society. Empathy, or in other words, being in another person’s shoes, is a crucial element that helps in building such an integration. 

Machine Learning tools of the future could predict the likelihood of an unhealthy online conversation. Nextdoor, ‘a San-Francisco based private social neighbourhood hub for trusted and helpful connections’ has a kindness reminder that alerts users if they type a word or phrase that has been reported by other users.

Now, let’s introduce you to a technology that has been branded by many as an empathy machine, Virtual Reality.  This powerful technological medium allows people to put on a headset and embody a different experience or absorb different perspectives in a more literal way, and thereby develop empathy towards the object of experience. 

This fact is well-known by Dr Courtney Cogburn, who is an assistant professor of social work at New York’s Columbia University. She has conceptualized a VR experiment called the 1,000-cut journey, which helps people understand the nature of racial inequality by allowing them to enrol in the journey of a black male who experiences racism at different stages of his life. People who are consuming this experience would get a chance to interact with the environment and with its people in a setting that is very immersive and realistic. 

Virtual Reality experiences (provided the content is compelling) can play a massive role in building the much-needed empathy in a world of prejudiced thinking. Empathy would in-turn create a culture of harmony, positive vibes and healthy relationships. And the likes of these form the most important requisites for any business.